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Los Angeles settles sprawling lawsuit over homelessness crisis

The agreement, which would build more than 14,000 housing units in the next five years, does not include LA County, which is determined to fight the suit in court.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Officials with the city of Los Angeles officials announced a deal Friday with the plaintiffs in the LA Alliance lawsuit, which sought to force the city and the county to build more housing to alleviate its homelessness crisis.

"We’ve sealed our commitment to find solutions for our unhoused neighbors, and to hold ourselves accountable," Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a press conference in City Council chambers.

Under the settlement, which still needs to be approved by a full City Council vote and then by a federal judge, the city will build between 14,000 and 16,000 units of housing — either temporary shelter units or permanent housing — at some point in the next five years, at a cost of between $2.4 billion and $3 billion. That would be enough, according to both sides, to house 60% of the city's homeless who are currently unhoused and not experiencing drug addiction or a serious mental illness.

That population of unhoused people, according to the city, are the responsibility of Los Angeles County.

There are more than 40,000 homeless living in the city of Los Angeles, and more than 65,000 in the county. It is generally estimated that between 20 and 30% of homeless sufferer from addiction or mental illness, though some argue that the number is far higher.

The city and the county each have their own government with their own sets of elected officials. Historically, the city has taken the lead in constructing buildings, while the county, which has a steady stream of revenue from the state and federal government, has typically taken responsibility for providing social services to those in need.

The two entities are often at odds. But more often than not, those disagreements have been voiced behind closed doors, or at least subtly. But on Friday, city officials spoke openly and with clear rancor about their frustrations with the county, which has a budget of nearly $40 billion budget that dwarfs the city's.

"The county is the one with a $3 billion mental health department. The county needs to step up and do their part. Enough of delay tactics and enough of saving face," City Council President Nury Martinez said at the press conference. "They’re not looking for solutions. They’re looking to protect themselves."

The county was also named as a defendant in the alliance's lawsuit, and has not not reached a settlement. Last week, the county's lawyer filed a motion to end negotiations, signaling its willingness to take the case to trial. The county also requested a new judge in the case, suggesting the "impartiality" of U.S. District Judge David Carter can be "reasonably questioned." The Bill Clinton appointee quickly denied that request.

If Martinez's words for the county were barbed, so was the response from LA County lawyer Skip Miller, who reacted to the agreement in a written statement: "This lawsuit has no merit with regard to the county. It is between the plaintiffs and the city, and we’re glad they settled. We intend to litigate and win this case. The county is more than doing its job and doing everything possible to address homelessness without stigmatizing it as a crime. Any assertion that the county has failed on this obligation is utterly baseless."

At the press conference, LA Alliance attorney Elizabeth Mitchell lashed back at the county.

"The county has acknowledged its obligations, acknowledged its failures, has billions of dollars for this specific purpose, but has refused to participate in this agreement because it says it's doing enough," she said. "The audacity of the county to say they’re doing enough when the streets clearly show otherwise is offensive."

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In an interview after the press conference, Mitchell suggested the reason for the county's intransigence is, perhaps, Miller himself.

"If you look back to the early days of this lawsuit, everyone was really in lockstep," Mitchell said. "Then you have a change in legal strategy… they got new lawyers, basically, and they went in a totally different direction. From there, it’s just been a schism."

The city already has 13,000 units of homeless housing, temporary and permanent, in the pipeline — that is, either being constructed or in the early planning stages. That means the commitment only obligates the city to build a few thousand more units on top of that. But Mitchell said the concession is still a serious one, and that the 13,000 units in the pipeline were largely in response to the lawsuit, and that their production schedule was "ramped up" to show good faith in negotiations.

"This is the culmination of the agreement, not the genesis of the agreement," Mitchell said.

The alliance lawsuit has been in court for more than two years, and has gone through numerous twists and turns. In April 2021, Judge Carter ordered the city and the county to offer everyone on skid row housing within six months. The order sent shockwaves throughout both governments, and threatened to upend billions of dollars of planned construction already approved by taxpayers. But the order was unceremoniously overturned by the Ninth Circuit this past September, with the three-panel judge writing that Carter's ruling was "largely based on unpled claims and theories," and that Carter had "impermissibly resorted to independent research and extra-record evidence."

In the last few months, the case has taken on a calmer tone, with the parties appearing in Carter's chambers for long, closed-door negotiations. On Tuesday, when asked about the prospects of a settlement, LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell told Courthouse News, "We’ve always been clear about where we stand. We’ve always had an offer."

A number of other nonprofit groups entered the lawsuit as intervenors, including Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) and LA Catholic Worker. Those groups have been concerned that the lawsuit will lead to the criminalization of homelessness, that people who decline shelter will be forced off the street, or, worse, into jail. Shayla Myers, the attorney representing LA CAN and Catholic Worker, said it was difficult to comment on a settlement agreement that hadn't yet been filed, and details for which had not been disclosed.

"Absent the really important details, there’s no way to judge whether this is a good idea, bad idea, unconstitutional or otherwise," Myers said.

The agreement won't have unanimous support on the City Council either. Councilman Mike Bonin announced, on Twitter, that he was against the agreement, writing: "I have grave concerns the settlement will push us in the direction of moving some people into shelters, where they will be locked into homelessness for years and not housed, and then using enforcement to push everyone else from block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood."

His colleague, Joe Buscaino, who's also running for mayor, said he supported the agreement, but said it would have limited impact on the city's visible homeless problem "until we obligate people to use the beds."

Any settlement will need to be approved by Judge Carter, who's shown himself to be unafraid of making headlines or being seen as an activist judge. Asked about that possibility, Scott Marcus, a lawyer for the city, said, "I wouldn’t presume to speak for any federal judge, but I think he’s gonna be pleased that the city is choosing to spend its resources to build housing and help the homeless, and not just keep paying for lawyers to litigate a case."

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